On Empathy and Shoes

May 7, 2013

“Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children….you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute.  That was enough.”    —   Atticus Finch, speaking to his children, in To Kill a Mockingbird


Teenagers are famously lacking in empathy.  Their inability to see another’s perspective is our chief complaint about them (aside from “Why don’t they clean up their rooms/do their homework/walk the dog?”) Parents are shocked, positively shocked, when their children ignore the needs and wants of their near and dear, most often forgetting that empathy is not just counter-intuitive, but counter-cultural.  In a me-first, individualist world, empathy is often the last thing on our minds.

Empathy is in fact the last thing in our minds to develop:  the truest test of wisdom.  It is the highest of our brain’s remarkable functions, even harder than multi-variable calculus for some of us, and simply not easily available to those whose brains are still under construction.

Which is to say, all of us, as long as we are still alive.

When we empathize, we imagine ourselves into the perspective of a fellow human being.  We try to picture the world from her point of view, and in doing so, must abandon our own myopia just for a moment or two and adopt the perspective of another person, thus allowing his or her needs and wants to become just as real as our own.

Empathy is hard for teenagers.  But here’s the kicker: I find that when we are complaining about teenagers and their lack of empathy, we are often ourselves failing to empathize with what it is truly like to be 12, 13 or 14 years old, inhabiting a body that is rapidly changing and brain that is not yet fully cooked, surrounded by others in the same predicament.  

To that end, follow me on a journey of empathy.   Let’s see where this takes us.

Imagine, if you can, that your body has just gone from a children’s size 10 to a grownup size medium or large, in little less than a year.  Inside your brain you are mostly a child, but your body falsely signals to the world that you have the judgment of an adult.  (Or, imagine the opposite:  you’ve developed the perspective of an adult, and your body has resolutely refused to grow big enough to make people take you seriously.)  Is it no wonder that the world keeps over- and then under-estimating you?

Now imagine that you have seven bosses: your history teacher, your science teacher, your mom, your smelly English teacher, a math teacher, and your lacrosse coach, plus a teacher who only speaks to you in a foreign language.  These bosses, who rarely communicate with one another, have competing goals for your day.

You have 5-7 projects due on a daily basis, all of which need to be submitted while you are with a jury of your peers.  Because you don’t yet have access to your own cash, you may or may not have the ability to supply yourself with paper, pencils, printer ink.  A bell rings every 45 minutes and you must go elsewhere to work, with another boss.  It would take a remarkable worker not to fail at least one boss every day.  (Imagine what it would be like to fail them all day long… you can’t even have the comfort of being fired; you have to keep showing up.)

And have I mentioned that your friends, on whom you rely for amusement and support, are not only hormonally unstable, but also have swollen amygdalas?  (Your amygdala, which nobody ever told you about, is the brain structure that tells you repeatedly to “DO SOMETHING!”  Brain imaging tests have shown that this “DO SOMETHING” brain organ is literally BIGGER in teenagers, shrinking only when they reach adulthood.)  Because of this overactive amygdala, your own brain is constantly shouting at you to act, and you don’t yet have the judgment to choose how to act.

These friends of yours are feeling the impulse to DO SOMETHING nearly all the time, but just like you, they do not yet have even a whisper of functionality in their frontal cortex, the part of the brain that provides humans with judgment and wisdom.  Being in middle school is in fact not unlike spending the day with a barrel of monkeys, just as you yourself are feeling suddenly more monkey-like.  It can be a lot of fun, until the rest of the monkeys suddenly start going wild in ways you could never have predicted.

(Are you following me here, grownups?  Unstable body, intense demands, unpredictable friends, strange brain chemistry?  Is it becoming any clearer why picking up a bedroom might be a priority lower on the totem pole than, say, just about everything else?)

And then, there is the technology, at a level which none of us oldesters had to grapple with when we were 13. Sure, I had a TRS-80, and suburban kids had cable and MTV, but in 1983, the youth of America were relatively unplugged.  Now we fight for the attention of kids against the siren-song of games that plug directly into the brain’s hungry pleasure center, or songs that mesh directly with teenagers’ soaring emotions, or the thousand channels of humor or sex or fear or the intensity of life just a click away.  Oh, and facebook and texts and emails from your friends and teachers and mom and forwarded chain mail and Instagram and youTube and something about to be released next week but which is going to be TOTALLY AWESOME and have no paywall.

(Are you still with me?  Are you inside your teenager’s brain yet?  Do you better understand why those underwear are still on the floor?  Does all of this make you want to go pick up your room?  I didn’t think so.)

Empathy is a two-way street, and if we are ever going to get our children to learn to empathize, we’re going to have to do a whole lot more of it ourselves.  We don’t have to be perfect parents like Atticus Finch, but we are going to have to do the emotional heavy lifting of spending 5 minutes a day trying on the stinky basketball sneakers of our sons, or the cork wedges our daughters keep asking us to buy them.

The first time Atticus shares his wisdom about empathy, he uses a metaphor even more direct than his footwear message. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.  You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus’s message to Scout is just another way of articulating my only rule of teaching and parenting, the one I have to work so hard to follow:  I must greet them where they are to help them to get them where they need to go. Teaching is not just standing at the front of the class being right and impressive.  It’s about finding out where my students are — intellectually and emotionally — then helping them to chart the course to move ahead.

When Scout Finch leapt into that circle of angry drunken men, saving her father a beating and Tom Robinson a lynching, she was not doing so for any reason other than pure misguided childishness.  It was lucky for her — and for everyone involved —  that she was plucky and stupid enough to strike up a conversation with Walter Cunningham and distract him from his own stupid errand.  It is lucky for all of us when we are reminded — often by our own children — to step out of our shoes and into the shoes of someone else who needs our understanding.

Atticus imagines a police force of children shaming the adults of the world into better behavior, but he himself never stoops to shame the children in his charge. (Well, he does once, on page 133, at the behest of his sister, but quickly comes back to his senses when Scout starts to cry.  He is too empathetic a parent to shame his children into behaviors that he knows they can not understand.)

Today I will be teaching my students a little more about empathy.  We’re knee-deep into the Civil Rights movements of the 20th century, and knee deep in the world of Atticus Finch.  We’re using a new tool I’ve never taught before, called “The Blueprint,” to streamline the process of imagining the feelings of another person to help us to solve problems.  I’m hoping that by the end of the day, each of them will have experienced a glimmer of the power of empathy.  But I know for a fact that unless I work on my own empathy first, it’s a lot less likely they will get there on their own.

Every day when I take roll, I ask the students some question, and they answer instead of just saying “here.”  Sometimes is is easy (favorite color, who you are rooting for in the playoffs…) but today I asked a question that stumped them at first:  Answer, when I call you, with something that someone else might have thought this morning.  Like your mother.  Or your teacher.  Or your sister.  Or your friend.  Answer in the voice of another.  

I gave them an example from my own house.  “Why is mom yelling at me to get out of bed, again?”  I said this in the voice of my daughter, and they guessed it right away.  A few students struggled with the idea, but soon they got into the swing.

“Why is he chewing gum again?” asked one student, in a voice I found very familiar.

“How many times do I have to ask her to get out of bed?” asked another, in the voice of a harried mom (again, who could be me).

“Why won’t she eat her breakfast?” another asked.  And then, “How can he eat five waffles?”  At these contradictory mom messages, we all cracked up.

It was a baby step, this exercise in empathy, yet it revealed more than I had expected.  I heard the voices of everybody’s parents, coaxing teenagers out of bed.  I heard the self-doubt of students wondering if anybody would truly be happy to see them in school.  I heard myself speaking in the voice of my daughter, asking for a little understanding.

Maybe tomorrow, inspired by my students, I will have some more of that to give.

But I have to remember that these lessons rarely sink in the first time.  During To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus drops the words of wisdom about shoes  and skins and empathy no fewer than four times.  Yet at the end, when Scout finally internalizes his message, imagining the world from the perspective of Boo Radley’s porch, she muses,

“Atticus was right.  One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”  It was way more than one time, Scout, but no matter, as long as the message eventually got through.

It’s hard work in here with these monkeys sometimes.  Particularly since I know that deep down I am one myself. But empathy, when I can manage it, makes this job of ours – being a human, with other humans — a whole lot easier.

Margaret May 7, 2013 at 11:58 am

I thought of myself telling you that my 18-year-old still doesn’t know how to pick up her room without my reminder…what she does know astounds me almost everyday and I have to remember to tell her that! She got an A in Chemistry, an almost perfect score on her English SAT, she counts Tori Morrison as a mentor and hero, she knows about Freud and feminism and gun control and how to hold her own–and usually win–in a debate with her boyfriend. The bedroom mess can wait…and so should my tongue.

Liz May 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Loved this- it makes me really miss teaching – especially TKAM. I always learned so much each time I taught that book. Now I need to reread as a parent…

Matthew May 7, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Thanks for sharing this valuable perspective.

A predicate step to learning empathy, in a story native to your home town:

In ’42’ Brian Helgeland writes a scene where Branch Rickey asks Pee Wee Reese if he knows the origin of the word ‘sympathy.’ “It’s Greek,” he says, “and it means “to suffer with or to share one’s suffering.”

Saw the film with my 13 year old son last week, and have repeated the line to him several times since.

Slowly, slowly, it might be sinking in.

Jessie May 8, 2013 at 9:16 am

Thank you for writing this. I always wondered why my 3rd grader gets off the bus in such a foul mood. This really gave me perspective and hopefully more patience! Congrats on the book, too!

Kevin Roth May 8, 2013 at 3:32 pm

That is a really outstanding piece of writing, Ms. Schweizer. I hope that all is well!

Eric Kamander May 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I really enjoyed this! Just this morning I was commenting on how difficult it sometimes is for me to reconcile how my 9 year old, who will soon be running circles around me in math, gets such a kick out of making fart jokes. I keep reminding myself how much more mature he is than I was at his age.

comment gagner de l argent sur internet gratuitement June 29, 2014 at 11:25 pm

Can I simply just say what a relief to find somebody that really understands what they’re talking about over the internet.
You definitely realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important.
More people really need to look at this and understand this side of your story.
I was surprised that you are not more popular given that you definitely have the gift.

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